As I was preparing to take my certification exam, a trainer at the gym shared with me a very profound tenet of the industry: “Clients don’t care how much you know, as long as they know you care.”

Her words have remained with me all these years. There have certainly been times when I clearly saw this dynamic playing out as I interacted with clients. Yet I have also worked with individuals who already possess a respectable command of kinesiology; these are the ones who occasionally challenge my knowledge base, but always in a good way.

What is truly important to a client when seeking out a personal trainer?

Employment of fitness trainers and instructors, including personal trainers, is expected to increase by 13% between 2012-2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) ( This meteoric surge is due in large part to an increase in awareness of the importance of fitness participation at all stages of life. In May 2014, fitness trainers earned a median annual salary of $34,980. The issue confronting budding trainers is to decide which path might maximize earning potential.

Many gyms base a trainer’s hourly salary on the number of nationally recognized certifications he/she holds, and some facilities bump up rates even further for trainers who have earned a college degree in a health-related area. These are the fitness centers that place a high value on the science behind the career, the complete package they can offer to their clients. However, there are just as many, if not more, gyms whose managers base salaries not on higher education but rather on years in the field. Experience, they contend, trumps formal education, which of course is extremely helpful when working with a novice or a seasoned client.

A brief search on the Internet will reveal a multitude of certification options that entitle the bearer to declare himself a “Certified Personal Trainer”, ready to plunge headlong into a fitness career. While several of these are quite reputable, even highly praised within the industry, there are some which most professionals would consider less than comprehensive. Today, most gyms and fitness clubs will not hire an individual to serve in the capacity of a personal trainer without documentation proving his alliance with a certifying body. This not only serves to protect the gym’s liability, but also allows the owner to proudly advertise that all of their employees are true professionals.

Operating under the assumption that all of the trainers at a health club are certified by a well-respected organization, what exactly distinguishes one trainer from another? This is where the debate comes into play. Continuing for a moment on the educational path, do clients place a higher value on trainers who are not only certified but college educated? Some individuals, especially those new to the fitness arena, feel they are in better hands with a personal trainer who has taken their chosen career to a higher level than that which a mere weekend-workshop certification can provide.

Stack of hardback books and Open book lying on bench


Higher Education

Indeed, there are many universities offering degrees in areas such as Sports Management, Anatomy and Physiology, Kinesiology, and Physical Education. A typical 4-year course load culminating in such a degree will certainly render a graduate completely capable of enhancing his PT certification’s education, thereby extending such knowledge to clients in a useful manner. My own college degree was earned in Microbiology; I am grateful for the education that has enabled me to understand exactly what is happening within the body at a cellular level when it comes to strength training and nutrition. As I share ideas with clients, I am certain they appreciate the depth of knowledge that comes with a Bachelor’s of Science degree.

Several years ago, an interesting study was undertaken by Deana I. Melton, Ed.D., CSCS, HFS, at the Human Performance and Leisure Studies Department of North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro. Seeking to address clients’ attitudes vis-à-vis the performance of their personal trainers, female clients were asked to assess trainers on several variables. Viewpoints were to be given on the following topics:

  • Selection Rationale ~ qualities that influence a client’s decision to hire a particular trainer (e.g., physique, results observed in other clients, social skills);
  • Personal Trainer Rationale ~ the clients’ reasons (e.g., frustration with current fitness level) for hiring a specific trainer;
  • Loyalty Rationale ~ the credentials of a personal trainer that anchor the client/trainer relationship;
  • Negative Characteristics ~ qualities considered to be unethical or unprofessional.

Upon reviewing the data, the emerging picture revealed an interesting point: if in fact a trainer decides on pursuing higher education, undergraduate exercise science programs might devote more time toward the development of trainers’ affective qualities, and that clients would benefit from information about the credentials of personal trainers.


Where does that leave the issue of what we often call “The School of Hard Knocks”, also known as experience on the job? There are still an abundance of trainers who do get hired without having completed a 4-year degree; and if they have been involved in sports their entire lives, will certainly make for positive role models. Every few years, it seems, a new ‘toy” or an innovative training style will happen upon the fitness scene. Then, a few years later, it has been discarded in favor of the new hottest trend.

For tried-and-true athletes, those traditional old-school moves – squats, bench presses, pull-up’s, dips — are just as impactful today as they were when good old Arnold was at his peak of competitive bodybuilding. For this reason, experience often can be the best teacher. Consistency in covering the basics, hitting all muscle groups, prioritizing rest days, and changing workouts every 4 weeks, will always achieve results.

The bottom line is…

This is your career, your passion, and you must decide on the optimal path for achieving your desired outcome. Whether you choose a college degree in addition to a recognized certification, or proceed solely upon years of hard work and experience, seek out the most appropriate clientele base to match with your background. The most important caveat to keep in mind: Never Stop Learning!  

Check out the CEC courses offered by NFPT.



Cathleen Kronemer

Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at She welcomes your feedback and your comments!